By Rev. Jon Turner.
One of the most important steps in becoming a practicing Buddhist is to realize that you have a serious illness. It is a vague, nagging sense of unease that there is something fundamentally off or missing from your life. Though this can be a very negative experience, it is also a very positive one when seen from a spiritual point of view. This feeling is what causes us to seek an alternative direction. From the Buddha’s perspective, we are all sleepwalking – it is the very lucky few who realize this in time to actually do something about it.
With our eyes open we can begin to see our afflictions. I would like to list four: the three poisons and suffering. The three poisons include greed, anger and ignorance. We are greedy in that we are never satisfied. We want more of what is pleasurable and less of what is not. We also get angry when the pleasure fades or does not last. These two emotions are based on the fallacy that things are permanent when they are not. For example, we want to hang onto our youth and get angry when it fades. This approach is based upon a fundamental ignorance of how things really are. Basing our happiness on something that cannot be relied upon is what leads to our suffering.
This suffering is not like a stomach ache or a black eye. It is much more subtle than that. It is a sense that our thirst can never be quenched. I think deep down we all know this to be the case, but we like to stay distracted so we do not really have to deal with it. It is only when this problem becomes so large that we are forced to do so. This is a real opportunity for growth and meaning.
Realizing our greed, anger, ignorance and suffering is actually a wonderful thing. We now know what the problem is. But knowing the problem does not necessarily reveal the solution. I think we mistakenly believe that we just need to remove these afflictions to realize peace. It seems reasonable and it is an approach, but it is difficult to remove greed, anger, ignorance and suffering through sheer will power. In fact, you may actually get very greedy for progress and become quite angry when it doesn’t come quickly. Perhaps we are still ignorantly over estimating the self – this can lead to even greater suffering.
There is another approach. Rather than removing the afflictions directly, we can apply four very powerful antidotes. This is a positive approach to practice rather than a negative one.
These four antidotes are sympathetic joy for greed, loving kindness for anger, wisdom for ignorance and equanimity for suffering. I don’t think this positive approach is emphasized enough within American Buddhism. Perhaps it is due to our cultural background. For example, the Ten Commandments list the ten negative things we should stop doing. Perhaps it would be easier for us if we also had a list of the ten positive things we should be doing; each one an antidote for the former.
In Pure Land Buddhism, I think the antidote is saying Namuamidabutsu. It is very powerful medicine that transforms our negatives into positives. Rather than focusing on not being greedy, not being angry, not being ignorant and not suffering, we could instead focus on taking some very positive actions; ones that remove afflictions whenever we follow the prescription of the Buddha.
Whenever we chant or bow or listen to the teachings – we are taking a very powerful remedy. One that addresses our afflictions directly – it has the advantage of not relying on our willpower. This develops a sense of gratitude and thankfulness within us – easing our greed, anger, ignorance and suffering as a natural consequence.
It does seem counterintuitive though. It would seem that if we find ourselves in a difficult situation then we should remove ourselves from it immediately. A direct, frontal approach would seem the best course of action. But when we have an infected finger don’t we go to the doctor for a powerful antibiotic? Don’t we attack it from the inside out? We don’t want to immediately remove the finger – we are quite attached to it! In fact, this might even lead to a more serious infection.
For us, the medicine is the practice of the Pure Land path and saying Namuamidabutsu. It is one that transforms positively. We do not take this path because we are weak or feeble. We take it because it is the only path that is effective for all afflictions. So please say Namuamidabutsu every day, once every four hours with continuing follow up appointments every week at the Hondo. In this way, with practice, your prognosis looks very positive.
Rev. Jon Turner